In The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen’s annotated translation of Austrian critic Karl Kraus’s essays, Franzen takes aim at all things digital—including the Mac Guy. He wrote, ‘a personified Mac (played by the actor Justin Long) of such insufferable smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison.’ Read Justin Long’s response. His movies, 'A Case of You,' and 'Best Man Down,' are in theaters soon.
I’m a huge fan of Franzen’s work, so in a weird way, just to be mentioned by him—no matter how pejoratively—was flattering. I’ve got to say, I thought a lot about The Kraus Project after I read it, and I thought it was an interesting essay—and one that I don’t necessarily disagree with. I love what he had to say about Karl Kraus, and the German point of view versus the romantic Italian and French way of looking at art, and finding aesthetic beauty in just walking down the street. Franzen is making a larger point about that, and our media-saturated culture, and the disdain he has for the state of things. And he frames it all within the Mac-PC marketing debate, and it was one that pitted utilitarian interests against more aesthetic ones. I kind of get it.
I think technology has diminished a lot of the joys that can be found in our personal communication. There’s an art to it, and there’s something that’s really troubling about the advent of all this social media. We started writing the film A Case of You about five years, back when MySpace was big, and now they have this dating app called Tinder, which is literally just a picture and a little blurb! I think the Karl Kraus essay was very prophetic in terms of that. I don’t think it’s inherently misguided to be on Twitter, but it’s a tool that can be overindulged in, and I see that all the time. I go on Twitter occasionally, and see people that are on it constantly. I see people on dates and they’re on their phone the whole time. There’s something very sad about that.
I can’t really speak to how he feels about my acting, because that’s obviously very subjective. He said I was “insufferably smug.” I don’t really want to defend what I did, but I must say that my control over the [Mac] content only went so far. They didn’t really allow us to adlib, and I was a cog in the wheel of a marketing campaign that had an inherent arrogance to it that couldn’t be escaped. The challenge that I was faced with, and if I do have any pride about it and take issue with anything he said, it’s that I tried as best as I could to take some of the bite off of that arrogance and work against it by throwing away lines, engaging more with John Hodgman, and embracing the friendship that we had. And I love John, so we had a very easy rapport. It was such a joy doing those commercials because of our rapport, and the easy, fun atmosphere.
My mom did three or four Entermann’s commercials when I was growing up, and they used to give us free boxes of Entermann’s desserts, but my mom was such a health food nut at the time that she’d give them away! Even the soft chocolate chip cookies, which are the best! But, sadly, I didn’t get any free Mac stuff for doing the campaign. It’s such a popular product that I think they knew I was a fan of it, and would’ve bought the stuff on my own.
But as far as the smugness of it, I don’t disagree with him.
I don’t know enough about the technology to really comment on the Mac vs. PC debate, but as far as my role as an actor, I was aware of the intention of the campaign, and tried to work as hard as I could against it. I was also jealous of John to be able to play the put-upon underdog character. That’s a much more fun role to play, as an actor. But, and this is not a canned response, I feel so lucky to be acting for a living, and it was a very cool job. I don’t have any regrets about doing the campaign. I’ve done my fair share of bad movies, and I don’t regret any of them—except one. I did a small part in the sequel to Waiting…, called Still Waiting…, and I watched it one day and it’s so aggressively misogynistic that I was mad at myself that I participated in it. That’s my one professional regret.
Franzen also talked about having to redefine “cool” in his essay, and how snark is “cool’s twin sibling.” As far as being a target in that article, I felt like I was in good company with Salman Rushdie, which was also weirdly flattering. But in the end, I don’t disagree with him. I think his language was a little heavy-handed, but I can’t discredit his opinion of what I did as an actor. I can only say how much I admire his work, and how much of an interesting article it was.
Karl Kraus probably would have found me to be pretty smug as well.
As told to Marlow Stern.